Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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April 23, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

INTERNET SHOPPING....Virginia Postrel muses about shopping on the internet:

[MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson's] early research found that prices on the Internet were 6 percent to 16 percent lower than prices off-line.

But when he thought about how people actually shop online, and what they find valuable, he realized that low prices are not the big story. Selection is. The Internet offers variety that is simply impossible in traditional stores.

I am living proof of this. Yes, I sometimes shop on the internet because prices are lower. But here are the first four items I ever bought on the internet. This is circa 1997:

  • A pink flamingo lawn ornament. I wanted one as a housewarming gift for a friend who likes this kind of 50s kitsch, but was told by my local Home Depot that pink flamingos are "seasonal items." Seasonal! My first thought was to try www.pinkflamingo.com, but that, um, turned out to be something quite different. However, a quick Google AltaVista search turned up www.thepinkflamingo.com and they shipped me a pink flamingo within two business days.

  • Some old wooden tennis rackets. Like all tennis players, I had last played with a wooden racket in the early 80s and I had gotten curious: what would my old racket feel like if I played with it today? My needs were specific: a Dunlop Maxply and a Davis Imperial, both with 4 5/8 grips. Within a couple of weeks I found what I wanted on eBay: a Maxply with a 4 1/2 grip, a Maxply McEnroe (pretty much the same thing) with a 4 5/8 grip, and a Davis Classic with a 4 5/8 grip. The Classic was a screwup (the seller had claimed it was an Imperial), but I kept it anyway. Each of these cost me about $20 and all three were in mint condition. It would have been almost impossible to find these exact models anywhere else.

  • A copy of Across Realtime, by Vernor Vinge. I have access to several large used bookstores within a few miles of my house, but none of them had it. Via Amazon's used book service (I think), I found a copy and had it in my hands within a week.

  • A copy of The Marriage of the Living Dark, by David Wingrove. I had been waiting for the entire 7-part Chung Kuo series to be available before I started in on it, but when I finally got going and read the first couple of books I suddenly discovered it was an 8-part series. Part 8 was then available only in England, but I was able to get it via a UK online bookshop. It cost a fortune, of course, and turned out to be a lousy book, so I guess internet shopping has its downsides too. I should have just waited for the American paperback.

eBay is the prototype for trying to find oddball stuff, of course, and I think it's also just about the purest internet business there is since it takes advantage of almost all of the internet's fundamental advantages: network effects, huge audience, disintermediation, and a highly effective database-driven search capability.

So: low prices? Sure, but broad selection, easy comparison, and the ability to buy hard-to-find items are equally important. I'm a believer, anyway.

Kevin Drum 7:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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